A few weeks ago, I flew home to Seattle from Missoula. I was looking forward to getting home, excited that the flight wasn’t more than an hour. I settled into my window seat and watched as the final passengers boarded. I popped in my earbuds in an attempt to tune out the world around me.
A family that I had seen earlier in the waiting area got on board. Two kids led the way, followed by their father and mother. Behind the mother was a third child, an incredibly agitated daughter. You could tell she was resisting getting onto the plane with every ounce of her body. “I don’t want to go!” she shrieked, as her mother held her firmly by the wrist.
I wondered when the tantrum would subside.
It didn’t. The girl, probably 8 or 9, continued to scream and put her body weight into trying to pull away. The family managed to get to their row, which happened to be right behind mine. I kept my earbuds in, but she was screaming so loudly I could barely hear what I was listening to.
I could sense the agitation on the plane, and even more so in her parents. I overheard the father, exasperatedly apologizing to his fellow passengers, “I’m so sorry, she’s autistic, she’s stressed about flying.”
I immediately took my earbuds out. This didn’t feel like a situation to avoid, it felt like a situation that required presence.
A flight attendant came up and sweetly talked the girl through how the plane would take off and what it might feel like. She offered up the quintessential pair of wings to pin on the girl’s shirt. The woman sitting next to me mentioned that she worked with children, and offered her pillow in case the girl wanted to hold it. I turned around and asked if art supplies might help, knowing I had pen and paper in my backpack. She didn’t want either but the father smiled at us both thankfully.
A man from the front of the plane walked up and sat down in the middle of the aisle. He was holding an infant. He held the infant up and introduced her. “You know, the first time she went on a plane she was scared too,” he said, making an immediate connection. He stayed there, talking to the girl calmly. Meanwhile, someone passed a bag of “magic M&Ms” to the mother.
It was a moment of humanity. A moment of everyone’s best side. When people need help, we have the capacity to provide it.
Eventually, the parents managed to get the daughter in her seat with a seatbelt on. “I don’t want to look out the window,” she said to her mother. Her mother lowered the window shade and situated her daughter with a pair of headphones. She held her while they watched something on an iPad as if they were sitting on a couch at home.
The plane took off, and the child’s agitation dissipated. I looked back about halfway through the flight. The daughter had swapped her aisle seat for her mother’s window seat, and the shade was open.
Sitting there in my seat and reflecting on the situation, I felt embarrassed at my own initial response. If I hadn’t gotten a sense of context about what the child was experiencing, how would I have felt then? Could I have led with more compassion instead of initial annoyance?
Our brains make judgments of people in split seconds, an evolutionary response that’s intended to keep us safe. Which means that we have to actively work at pushing past those initial impulses. We have to ask ourselves: do we turn away from someone, or do we turn towards them?
We can do this on a personal, individual level, but I also think it’s required of us on a larger, more global level. This is often harder, more complex. When we don’t have a personal experience or a personal connection point, it’s much easier to make overarching assumptions about entire people, entire cultures.
We don’t know what is happening in people’s internal worlds. But we make assumptions and judgments as if we did. To lead with our humanity is to choose to lead, not with preconceived notions, but with our curiosity. We do not need a qualifier to empathize with someone who is going through pain. We do not need context to extend our own humanity. We can feel, we can connect. It’s in our nature to do just that.
Empathy might be part of our overall human capacity, but it’s still something that we can get better at — empathy functions like a muscle, and the more we work at it, the more we do it, the easier it becomes. Our brains might elicit an initial snap judgment, but we can make a choice to override that and lead with curiosity, we can extend outwards when it feels a little uncomfortable, we can work at challenging our own assumptions.
As the plane landed in blustery Seattle, an enormous rainbow covered the sky. I snapped a photo.
When we were gathering our bags to disembark, I overheard someone asking the girl how the flight ended up being. “Not that bad!” she said.
I reached over the seat and showed her my picture. “This is what I saw out the window on my side of the plane,” I said. She promptly responded, “We didn’t have that on our side. Bummer!”
I smiled. “Maybe you’ll see one on your next flight.”
Anna Brones is a writer and artist who lives in Vaughn.
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